Once again the American government finds itself embarrassed, rather than honored, by an influx of political refugees. Once again an indecisive administration abruptly shifts course. After initially expressing its discomfort over the flotilla of small ships that began to reach Key West from Cuba, the administration reversed direction for a time after President Carter "opened" his heart and arms -- and federal support -- to the emigres. Now, however, Carter has veered sharply again and begun steering a more cautious course: seizing the incoming boats until Fidel Castro can be pressured into "stabilizing" the procedures for refugee departure.

Menawhile, the Caribbean exodus continues, primarily from El Supremo's Cuba but also from "Baby Doc's" Haiti. (A third migration looms if Michael Manley's hard-pressed Jamaican government slides under Castro's tutelage toward overt repression.) But American policy toward the exiles continues to flounder.

Although the Refugee Act of 1980 allows admission beyond the normal yearly quota to those fleeing persecution either on "humanitarian" grounds or "in the national interest," there remains no clear American policy toward those who hurriedly abandon dictatorships for political reasons.

The primary goal of American refugee policy, however, should be to prepare itself (to the extent possible) for the inevitable Diasporas and Dunkirks of the 1980s, anticipating and planning for those occasions on which the worst might happen to our friends abroad. The visual symbols of American response to political refugees in the decade ahead should not be those of anguished civilians hanging from the skids of helicopters on embassy roofs, or unskilled marmers piloting crowded and unsafe skiffs through Asian or Caribbean waters without assurance of rescue. In a world crowded with tyrannies, one task of any American government is to remind the public regularly of this country's normal obligation to receive the latest crop of "boat people," from wherever they come and however they escape. Those brave enough to risk their lives to reach the United States deserve not only a decent reception but also a coherent national plan for dealing with political refugees that Americans can understand and support.

There recently was an anniversary of an event memorable even today for those old enough to recall the indifference of the Western democracies during the 1930s toward the Jews of Germany and Austria, the decade's largest group of political refugees. Just as some Florida boat captains have demanded exorbitant sums to transport human cargo from Cuba to Key West, the traffic in sales of usable entry papers to safe countries for Jews became widespread in the years before World War II broke out. One Hamburg-American line ship, the SS St. Louis, had purchased from Cuban officials during the spring of 1939 a number of visas that the line marketed to refugees for $150 each. The SS St. Louis sailed from Germany carrying 940 Jews bearing those entry papers.

The ship reached Havana on May 27. Although the company had learned the previous week that the Cuban government had canceled the visas -- its officials were reportedly holding out for $350,000 in bribes -- passengers aboard the SS St. Louis heard about the cancellation only after reaching the Havana harbor. Neither the American government nor the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (which offered to provide a $500 cash bond for each refugee) could persuade Cuban officials to allow the Jews to land. Twenty-two lucky exceptions were allowed ashore, two desperate passengers committed suicide while others threatened, and the ship finally returned to Europe early in June with its cargo of homeless refugees.

Opponents of a more generous policy toward admitting refugees today have argued on both economic and social grounds against mass immigration. Yet public opposition to the current influx remains surprisingly muted. On the eve of World War II, with the United States still not recovered from the Great Depressions, four out of five Americans opposed opening the gates more widely. As historian Robert Dallek pointed out recently, "A sustained call by FDR for allowing Nazi victims to come to the United States in greater numbers might have mobilized the country's more humane instincts. . . [Instead] Roosevelt allowed domestic and international constraints to limit him to a series of small gestures."

So strictly did American diplomats abroad interpret immigration rules that three-quarters of the German quota remained unfilled during most of the 1930s. tCountless anti-Nazis, Jews and Christians alike, might have been saved from imprisonment and death by a more sympathetic administration that the one whose view of the refugee problem was described by Rep. Emanuel Celler in 1938 as a "heartbeat muffled in protocol."

The "common criminal" issue now being raised in connection with the Cuban exiles is purely a red herring. Many of the so-called "common" criminals are actually "political" ones, since the distinction is inevitably blurred in an authoritarian regime. The overwhelming majority of arrivals have no criminal record whatever. In any event, a Georgia president whose state was created in colonial days as a philanthropic venture to reform "criminals" from England's pestilent prisons should be the first to recognize how unimportant such backgrounds remain in determining a person's future performance as an American.

We should be grateful, in short, and not grudging toward the latest wave of Cuban political refugees. They remind this country of its obligations to support democratic exiles at such moments, while focusing attention on the need for an overall policy. Those prepared to struggle for the values of a free society within a dictorial one deserve, whenever the occasion arises, shelter and support from the United States even more reliable than that which terrorists and revolutionaries currently receive from governments such as Cuba and Libya.